Growing up in Iowa, farm country, I had not given much thought to how the food I ate was produced. Like many of us, I had been raised to believe that meat and dairy were necessary for my health and survival. I only knew a few vegetarians or vegans, and didn’t understand why someone would choose a lifestyle that seemed so difficult and restrictive. I was unaware of factory farming. I saw the cows that grazed in fields…I didn’t see the large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and slaughterhouses that were kept out of sight.
How did I go from “I can’t imagine being vegan—and what do they eat anyway?” to becoming an ethical vegan? And what supports me (and others) in maintaining this lifestyle in a society that is often at odds with our commitment? An approach that has been helpful for understanding the process of health and behavior change is the Transtheoretical Model of Change, developed by psychologists James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente. The stages identified in this model are: Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance, and Termination.
Until 13 years ago, I had no real impetus to shift my way of eating. This initial Precontemplation stage is often overlooked, and we may expect ourselves or others to be ready for immediate action. However, most of us, at one time, were NOT READY for change. Perhaps we didn’t have awareness of the benefits of a plant-based diet. Or perhaps the perceived burden of change outweighed the potential benefits.
Often, there is some information or life event such as a health scare that awakens us into greater readiness for change. My shift into the next stage, Contemplation, occurred when I watched a program about workers in “meat processing plants.” These employees described frequent occupational injuries, and felt coerced to work even when injured, due to fear of losing their jobs. The program did not show any gory details of the slaughter process. However, the glimpse into the lives of the workers was enough to make me re-evaluate my food choices. The next day I bought my first vegetarian cookbook. From there, I went on to read every book in my local library about vegetarian and vegan issues, and learned about factory farming and the treatment of farmed animals. I also learned about the health benefits of plant-based nutrition. I did not become vegan (or even fully vegetarian) right away, but I began to try out new foods and new ways of cooking.
My movement into Preparation occurred when I had taken in enough information that my commitment to change outweighed the perceived negatives. I now had a strong enough emotional connection to my reasons for going vegan to overcome years of cultural conditioning. For me, the biggest challenge was handling social situations where vegan food wasn’t readily available. I prepared by strengthening my communication skills, and problem-solving how I would meet my needs in those situations.
In the Action stage, we learn how to shift old ways of doing things. We foster supportive social networks and modify our environment to remove tempting triggers that may undermine our commitment. For me, this included meal planning so that I had healthy plant-based meals and snacks always available, joining a local vegetarian group, and continuing to read and learn so that I stayed connected to my reasons for a plant-powered lifestyle.
We may believe that once we have taken action, we are set. However, in order for change to be lasting, we must create structures that will nurture our new lifestyle through times of stress, when we are most at risk for falling into familiar, unhealthy patterns of coping. The keys to Maintenance include preparing for situations that challenge our commitment, learning from setbacks, and celebrating the positives of our new lifestyle.
In the final stage (Termination), we have mastered challenging situations and have built the confidence to navigate them. We’ve learned to provide for our needs in daily food choices, and to handle travel and social situations. Now our commitment is so ingrained, it’s hard to imagine any other way of living.
As imperfect humans, our progress may be incremental, and we may cycle or re-cycle through these stages. Setbacks are a normal part of the change process, and we can view them as learning opportunities instead of failures. For me personally, it was difficult to stick to my intentions when I was in challenging social situations, and I was a vegetarian for several years before becoming fully vegan. However, no matter where we are in the process, we can always commit and recommit to honoring our deepest values.
NOTE: This article was initially written for the Main Street Vegan Academy Blog